John Freeman: How to Read a Novelist

“I’ve always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists,” writes longtime literary journalist, editor, and critic John Freeman. While meeting an actor or a musician prompts a comparison between their physical self and the images we see on the screen, there’s something more numinous and paradoxical in these encounters, when one comes face to face with “the creator of a physical world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied” — a flesh-and-blood meeting with a creature something like a god.

Freeman has racked up enough of these encounters to know: the former editor of the literary magazine Granta and president of the National Book Critics Circle has collected, in How to Read a Novelist, the fruits of a decade of conversations, with writers from A. S. Byatt to William T. Vollmann. These fifty brief pieces capture novelists in moods of career-spanning reflection (Norman Mailer), puckish humor (Amy Tan), guarded cooperation (Don DeLillo), and expansive rumination (Jeffrey Eugenides).

John Freeman spoke with us about How to Read a Novelist via email (a subject he also has a few things to say about). The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. –Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: Your essay “U and Me” sensitively captures the curious contradictions implicit in all interviews, but particularly in the strange case of the interview with a novelist, whose imagination readers have already become so intimate with. The interview with a journalist mimics an intimacy that can’t approach what happens in the act of reading fiction. Yet we crave these opportunities to enter into a different sort of relation to the authors we love. Why is that?  Why do you think we can’t leave well enough alone?

John Freeman: Have you ever been reading a book you’re enjoying, and as you get closer to the end, you start flipping to the back flap to look at the author photo? As if to say, Who are you? I’ve done that for sure. The last time was with David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. I was on a train to Edinburgh, and that book was slowly cracking open my head and I wanted to see, well, who was wielding the crowbar. Why did he know so much about me? The intimacy of that encounter, between reader and writer, can be so great it would feel strange not to know anything about them. It’s different than music, say, or dance, or even film, because the author is merely supplying the words; you, as the reader, are making them come to life with your imagination. So you’re co-creating the experience of reading the book. You’re building an experience together. And it’s only natural, I think, to want to know more about the person you’re doing it with.

BNR: You titled the book, of course, How to Read a Novelist. You performed these interviews over a period that spans more than a decade. When you looked back on them to put this volume together, did any central insights about the nature of novelists, and how to understand them, emerge? Have your own feelings about reading fiction changed?

JF: Yes, certainly, and maybe it’s because I just had an event with Marilynne Robinson, whom I talked to for the book, but a lot of the central insights mimic the questions of faith. Doubt comes up quite a bit. Many of the writers here do not know, as they are writing, what they are making. Like Mark Danielewski, who couldn’t fathom, at the start, whether he was even writing a book when he put together House of Leaves. Or Haruki Murakami, who says he just opens the door of his imagination and wanders in and discovers, there, what he will write about. Louise Erdrich said she just hears voices and gradually over time knows which one belongs to which book. And then, when the project coalesces, they wonder if they can pull it off. They worry, as David Foster Wallace talks about in the book, about language’s capacity to capture thought. They get stuck, as Margaret Atwood mentions, with big books. This feeling of not-knowing terrifies them, but it also drives them, and it becomes essential to the fictive impulse. I found this, as a writer, incredibly reassuring.

BNR: Some of the novelists included herein have been able, to paraphrase John Updike, to keep themselves entertained by writing. But there are certainly examples of others — here I’m thinking particularly of the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o — who write for the most urgent political reasons, sometimes endangering themselves in the process. Do we do misunderstand their work grouping it under the same catchall as, say Tom Wolfe’s?

JF: Actually, I don’t believe so, because all books — whether it’s a bulging page-turner by Wolfe or a novel about South Africa post-apartheid by Nadine Gordimer — sign the same contract with a reader, which is they must transport them. Make the reader forget he or she is reading, take them somewhere else, dramatize and punch forward the stuff of life. This isn’t entertainment as in a big popcorn-thriller at the movies. It’s entertainment of the mind, because the reader’s mind is producing all the 3-D effects, it’s doing all the work of the cinematographer, it’s doing the casting, it’s doing the soundtrack. Every great writer has a different way of making it possible for you, as the reader, to do all these things, and when a novelist does it well, your mind comes alive. It is entertaining, in essence, itself with the fabulous capacity we all have to dream.

BNR: You masterfully paint the picture of Don DeLillo withdrawing himself from your conversation, “unrevealing himself piece by piece” — one gets the sense the interviewee somehow escaping via a magic trick. How do you handle it when a writer’s defenses start to go up?

JF: I come from a family of social workers, so I can question silence with the best of them. “How did that make you feel?” etc. “Do you want to talk a little more about that?” And I also went to a Quaker college, so I’m also not uncomfortable with silence. The thing I eventually learned after a few hundred of these interviews is to know when to question and to know when to wait. The latter is much harder, but these were not radio interviews so I had the luxury or doing that. Out of waiting I wound up with some of the best encounters in my experience as an interviewer. Like Kazuo Ishiguro giving me advice about how to put clotted cream and jam on my scones at a café in London. “Just think of it like putting blood on fresh snow,” he said. It can be stressful, that silence, but if you give the writer time to find a thought they want to pursue, it gives them freedom. DeLillo was this way — if I let the silence lie, sometimes, he’d find a thought and pick it up and start rolling it over in his hand like a pebble. If I jumped in he’d become more reactive and tense.

BNR: One of my favorite interviews in the book is with Robert M. Pirsig, the  reclusive author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — a man who has been spurned by the philosophic community he has devoted his writing life to, and simultaneously embraced by readers all over the world, who are moved by his books whether or not they want to grapple with his “Metaphysics of Quality.” He stands out among these other portraits — almost a literary outcast.

JF: I think it was his first interview in almost twenty years. There we were at a hotel on the Charles, in a very stark room, with a tatami mat and a piece of paper so he could draw out ideas. His wife was nearby, sometimes interjecting. His hands shook, too. I felt an incredible responsibility, there, to get it right, or at least do right by what he wanted to talk about, which were his ideas. His books, for him, were life rafts, and he got on them and floated away from the things which made his life so unwieldy. And yet, he never really got away from them. The need to systematize life’s onslaught, to break it down, as he does in Zen. And the loss of his son, the boy he wrote about in Zen and who was murdered in San Francisco, shattered him. It certainly colored Lila, his second book. Made that book necessary. Anyway, we sat and talked about how these two books build a Metaphysics of Quality. He gave his life, in a way, to making that system and if he wanted to talk about it for two hours I felt it was my duty to listen.

BNR: We all form ideas about a writer’s personality from reading them. Who were the biggest surprises to you in conversation?

JF: Most writers, I found, were a lot like their books. Peter Carey has a high-decibel personality, Edmund White is one of the best sources of literary gossip I’ve ever found and yet is also forgiving of people’s faults. Richard Ford is confident, Salman Rushdie extremely funny, Nadine Gordimer crisp and remote, but in that remoteness warm, and Günter Grass avuncular. John Irving seemed like he’d rather be arm-wrestling, Aleksandar Hemon tells great stories about places, and speaking to Marilynne Robinson is like talking to the oracle. Imre Kertész has an arachnid intelligence, while Joyce Carol Oates spoke of Hawthorne and Melville as if they were her next-door neighbors. I suppose only Ian McEwan, who asked as many questions as he answered, struck me as a surprise. His books, especially the early ones, have a honed-in-a-tunnel kind of perfection to the prose. I always imagine that the compressive pressure required to make sentences like that would not translate well to the everyday world, where there are pauses and dead-time, things one cannot shape. And yet I found him very good company, curious, and easygoing.

BNR: Who isn’t in this book that you wish was there? Who are you still looking forward to meeting?

JF: I left out many pieces I wrote, because there were simply too many for one book — so Gary Shteyngart, Richard Russo, and Shirley Hazzard were hard interviews for me to drop, but the first two are people I’d like to re-interview. Shteyngart’s life will become so much clearer with this incredible memoir he has coming out in January. And in Russo’s case, I don’t think I got him right the first time. I missed the way his humor proceeds from a kind of rage about the failures of American life. I would very much like to talk to Denis Johnson, whose work has the feel of an epic landscape: wide open and strange, beautiful, haunted. Herta Müller, too, her ferociousness is intimidating and inspiring. I published a few pieces by Alice Munro at Granta but never met her: we talked of Eudora Welty on the phone as we went through her edits, and yet I missed the chance to go to see her. Karen Russell, Aminatta Forna, Eleanor Catton, I know all these writers but have never interviewed them. I doubt I’ll stop doing this. I can’t imagine why I would.